Man City figured things out and made Arsenal regret their complacency and mercy. Ruben Dias was every bit as good as Takehiro Tomiyasu and Gabriel were bad.
1) There was a symbolic beauty in watching Kevin De Bruyne stroll along the touchline as Arsenal supporters launched empty bottles at him. The substitute smirked and winked as he dodged one and the rest landed aimlessly in the general area surrounding him, never close enough to make contact.
Arsenal threw everything at Manchester City. It wasn’t enough. The visitors sauntered through and took what they deem to be theirs by right of unerring brilliance. De Bruyne sandwiched a decisive victory with a sumptuous opening goal and a wonderful assist to the clincher. The Gunners could not get near him and the title momentum has shifted.
2) Arsenal did not shame themselves. Far from it. Their last 11 Premier League games against this opponent have ended in defeat and each of the previous 10 were humbling, degrading experiences which underlined the gulf in quality, ability, intelligence, tactics and expertise separating the Gunners from the top table.
This was more a lesson in efficiency and moments. Manchester City took theirs and Arsenal did not. Eddie Nketiah had two presentable chances and headed both wide, then could not quite reach a Takehiro Tomiyasu cross to tap in from six yards. De Bruyne scored from his only shot, as did Grealish. Both teams made careless mistakes under pressure but while Arsenal converted the penalty Ederson clumsily conceded, all three Manchester City goals came seconds after the home side gave the ball away. Arsenal had 10 shots to nine but in terms of efforts on target it was one to City’s six. The difference between leaders new and old was negligible yet substantial at the same time.
3) Beyond even the aforementioned moments themselves was the timing of them.
Nketiah’s attempted header connected with his shoulder and chest when Oleksandr Zinchenko’s glorious cross found him unmarked in the area on 22 minutes; De Bruyne scored two minutes later.
Wonderful link-up play between Nketiah, Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka allowed Tomiyasu the time and space to cross from the right in the 66th minute but Nketiah could not quite reach when any sort of forward contact would have beaten Ederson; Grealish scored six minutes later. And three minutes after that, Granit Xhaka contrived to neither pass nor shoot when either outcome would have been acceptable.
Zinchenko’s clever flick played Leandro Trossard into the area in the 79th minute but the Belgian could only stumble towards and over Kyle Walker against the backdrop of quarter-hearted penalty appeals; Erling Haaland scored three minutes later.
Arsenal were better when it didn’t matter but Manchester City were close to perfect when it did. Fine margins and all that.
4) Arsenal also lacked that player to calm situations down on the ball. Jorginho was more effective at it as anyone and offered a passing option to every teammate even as Manchester City’s press started to consume the hosts, but they could not get the ball to him often enough.
No-one else offered a semblance of press-resistance by the end and it was most striking of all to see Zinchenko – surely fluent in the art of finding a route through these players – passing about 10 yards too short to Gabriel on the edge of his own area to produce another Manchester City chance shortly before their third goal. Throw in Xhaka’s existential crisis when bearing down on goal in the second half and two of Arsenal’s chief lieutenants went missing in action late on so little more could be expected of the rest of them.
5) It may also be no coincidence that Manchester City struck at the precise times Arsenal were in the ascendancy. The most dangerous part about facing Guardiola’s side can often be navigating any period of superiority, riding those rare waves of dominance and keeping composure after finding a gap in the armour or a vulnerability to target. The immediate temptation is to get carried away but then complacency creeps in, concentration is lost and punishment is meted. Looking down at Manchester City to admire the view even for a second is to lose the high ground. Arsenal had an eight-point lead at the Premier League summit 28 days ago and it has been obliterated.
6) The result will be boiled down by many to the basic line of perennial champions finding a way and plucky challengers lacking the requisite experience to do so, but that feels like a forced first-versus-second narrative and a comforting cliche to fall back on when the holders dispose of a group which has never been at the sharp end together before.
This was not that. Arsenal did not lose because they don’t know how to manage a title race in the instinctive way Manchester City can. Arsenal lost because because of isolated individual errors which undermined a great team display. No Pep Guardiola side has ever had as little possession in a league game. No Pep Guardiola side has ever had as low an overall passing accuracy in a league game. Arsenal pressed excellently, knitted some wonderful moves together and restricted a sensational team to limited opportunities.
As Mikel Arteta said after the game: “Just move on. Realise why we lost the game and move on.” Some post-mortems do not have to extend far beyond simply pointing out that passing the ball to a clinical opponent in two separate instances and being wasteful with your own chances is not conducive to victory, regardless of how good the rest of the performance is.
7) The other side to this is just how brilliant Manchester City were in the second half. Rodri managed the game superbly next to the equally impressive Ilkay Gundogan as the visitors went from bypassing the midfield with long balls to controlling it with a vice grip either side of half-time.
Rodri had already hit the crossbar with Gundogan assisting Grealish’s goal before their combination in the middle provided the platform for Manchester City’s third. Walker stepped up to take the ball off Trossard, Rodri drew Xhaka in before offloading to Gundogan, and the German held it and occupied a couple of players just long enough to release De Bruyne for the Haaland cutback.
Arsenal had been playing Rodri and Gundogan’s game long before then; that was just the exclamation mark to a couple of statement performances from the Manchester City midfielders.
Arsenal were great first-half but since the break Gundogan and Rodri have stepped up. once Pep moved Bernardo onto the wing it was all one-way traffic until it was 1-3. different class.
— Muhammad Butt (@muhammadbutt) February 15, 2023
8) Saka had 46 touches in 90 minutes, split exactly evenly between the first and second halves. But the contrast before and after half-time could hardly have been more stark.
Those 23 first-half touches included just two in his own half (as many as in the opposition penalty area), with makeshift left-back Bernardo Silva forced into fouling Saka three times. Those 23 second-half touches were generally deeper, with just four in the attacking third, eight in his own half and none of any meaningful consequence. Nathan Ake came home, confiscated the drinks, turned the music off and stopped the party.
If there is one concern for Arsenal to extract from this game, it’s just how reliant that attack is on Saka playing well. The hosts did not have a single shot in the 40 minutes between his equalising penalty and Haaland making it 3-1, in which time Manchester City shut their left-hand side down.
9) Silva was not a particularly natural fit on that side of the defence. When Arsenal launched a counter-attack in the second minute the Portuguese was laughably central when trying to hold the line, leaving Saka in a good 15 yards of unused space. The Gunners forward exploited the situation by drawing a number of fouls and it was a surprise to see neither Silva nor Walker, both of whom had been booked, taken off at half-time.
Those looked like obvious weak points for Arsenal to capitalise upon but Rodri ensured they could not get close enough and the introduction of Manuel Akanji for the dreadful Riyad Mahrez on the hour removed those factors from the equation regardless.
Ill-fitting as Silva was at left-back, his turn as right-winger transformed the game. The interception of Gabriel Magalhaes’ pass before playing in Haaland for the decisive second goal was the Portuguese in his element. Taking his roles in and out of possession into account, Silva filled about five different positions throughout the game. The tactical versatility and intelligence that requires at this level is ludicrous. There remains no better big-game player.
10) Another contributing factor to Arsenal’s defeat was the way in which Martin Odegaard was, as Guardiola put it, “jammed” by Silva. While the Norwegian was able to roam and find areas to threaten Manchester City in the first half, the visitors were quicker to close the space after the break.
Odegaard’s passing accuracy fell from 95% in the first 45 minutes to 83% in the second – not a considerable drop but enough to make Arsenal’s attacks seem far more disjointed and aimless. Arsenal made that kind of small tweak and adjustment necessary by playing so well, the irony being that it won Manchester City the game because they could not take advantage.
11) Tomiyasu has presumably had better evenings. There is no point dissecting the decision-making and execution of his attempted pass back to Aaron Ramsdale, while sympathy is in greater supply than blame for the slight but pivotal deflection he added to Grealish’s finish.
More disturbing for Arsenal should be the performance of Gabriel. While centre-half partner William Saliba engaged in a healthy and even battle with the apparently Real Madrid-bound Haaland, the Brazilian markedly struggled. His contribution to the second goal was lamentable and only a fortunate offside call rescued the sort of clumsy defending on Haaland which only ever results in a penalty. Even De Bruyne’s goal could have been prevented with more alert tracking. Benjamin White might expect a recall at the weekend but on this basis it is tough to declare which position it should be for.
12) Ruben Dias was outstanding. The Portuguese blocked more shots (four) than Ramsdale and Ederson saved between them (three). Manchester City really have missed the leadership and organisational skills of their best defender.
13) It was quite refreshing to see Anthony Taylor award a penalty for Ederson’s foul on Nketiah. The Arsenal striker managed to squeeze a shot through after Xhaka’s chipped pass found him in the area, but the Manchester City keeper clattered into him as Ake cleared the ball off the line.
Keepers almost always get away with flattening an opponent after they take a shot. It is a bizarre trend and should be penalised more often. There is a debate to be had about the consistency of awarding a penalty for such fouls, but absolutely not the justification behind it.
14) Saka has taken four penalties for Arsenal since the Euro 2021 final, scoring against Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City. There are two points to make here: 1) that requires unbelievable fortitude from a special player, and 2) Spurs had better be careful around the area during north London derbies.
15) It is difficult not to come back to those Nketiah chances. The striker’s union will recognise the positives behind him finding those positions and impacting the play. His hold-up work was very good throughout and helped start the move which he was an inch away from finishing after Tomiyasu’s cross.
But at this level that can be the difference between victory and defeat. Twice in the first 12 minutes Arsenal forced high turnovers but Nketiah wasted those quick counter-attacks by shooting when he had far better passing options. The 23-year-old has carried the can for longer and to a far greater standard than anyone predicted but he cannot be Arsenal’s long-term starting centre-forward.
16) “You want it? OK, fight. Take it,” Guardiola implored of Arsenal before the game. The futility of those missiles launched at a nonchalant De Bruyne really did capture the essence of a team which gave it everything but could not land that truly telling blow. The Belgian provided his sixth Premier League assist to Haaland a few minutes prior as the Manchester City forward furnished an excellent performance with yet another goal. It really doesn’t feel like the champions and leaders play better without him on evidence as compelling as this.